Many residents in Texas House District 136 got a robocall last week – but it wasn’t a campaign message.
In an effort to help the community’s most vulnerable residents during the coronavirus pandemic, some local leaders are turning to the political tool, which is typically reserved for campaign season.
“Our two goals here: One was to give food to those in need; two was to check in on our neighbors, so we’re just doing phone calls,” said Rep. John Bucy, who represents the district that encompasses a portion of Northwest Austin, Cedar Park and Leander in the state Legislature.
Texans have been ordered to stay home as much as possible to protect themselves from COVID-19. For those most at-risk of developing severe cases of the disease – older adults and those with underlying health conditions – prevention is even more imperative.
Bucy teamed up with Austin City Council Member Jimmy Flannigan, whose district covers part of Northwest Austin, to create the HD 136 Neighbor to Neighbor Seniors Food & Wellness Program. The program delivers food to district residents who are 60 and older and are homebound or have urgent food access needs due to the pandemic. It made its first deliveries Friday.
“We brainstormed how we might encourage direct outreach to seniors, which are both the most vulnerable to the virus and maybe the least likely to be accessing online information,” Flannigan said. “Together we decided we would start this program and focus it on access to food and information.”
Rather than using virtual phone banks to get out the vote, the organization is using the technology to find and connect with people over 60.
They narrowed down their database, which is based on voter registration data, to 24,000 people in the district who meet that criteria. Volunteers make their way through the list, calling to check in and let these older adults know about the food program and other resources available to them in the community.
Bucy says he recognizes it’s not a foolproof system, since not everyone over 60 is registered to vote.
“We’re trying to find other means beyond our phone calls and text messages … to get the word out,” he said. “We’re just asking everyone that has abilities to spread the word to keep doing that.”
An initial robocall went out last week to phones the organization is legally allowed to call: landlines. Then volunteers began making live calls. They’re also using the texting software Hustle to share information on the program.
When Bucy and Flannigan put out a call for volunteers, they got 75 in the first 24 hours. Now, they have a team of some 120 people. There are a lot of phone numbers to call, so they've been targeting people they believe live alone first (households with only one registered voter).
“Part of the purpose is to just have them get a friendly phone call from a neighbor to check in on them and have a conversation,” Bucy said. “One of the things we’re asking is, ‘Do you want follow-up phone calls?’ Some people won’t. Some people probably will, so then they’ll stay on our list to keep getting follow-up phone calls even if they don’t take advantage of the food program.”
The effort is partnering with Leander-based Hill Country Community Ministries, a nonprofit that helps people in need in Williamson and Travis counties. In addition to making calls, the volunteers package food from HCCM’s food pantry and deliver it to those who have expressed a need — all while practicing social distancing.
Shellie Hayes-McMahon, a Cedar Park resident and operations director of Annie’s List, volunteered to deliver food Friday. She said drivers clean their cars and hands between trips.
“We pre-sanitize our cars, steering wheels, doorknobs, all that inside the car first,” she said. “We drop off, ring their doorbell or knock on the door, sanitize our hands, get back in our cars re-sanitize our steering wheels and then the process just goes on and on.”
The tedious process aims to keep both volunteers and recipients safe. Hayes-McMahon said she doesn’t interact with recipients in person, but drops a package off and returns to her car where she watches to make sure the person picks it up.
“The better we can keep our social distance as we are delivering, the safer everyone is going to be,” she said. “It also gives the recipient the assurance that we are doing our part to keep them healthy.”
One of the families she delivered to was a grandmother taking care of two young grandchildren. She dropped off bread, melons, milk, cereal, cold cuts and other items, likely enough for four or five days.
“What it’s really exposing, in my eyes, is the lack of a safety net for the most vulnerable in our community,” Hayes-McMahon said. “I didn’t ask her what her circumstances were, but there are multiple multi-generational families out there now who are suffering. She can’t take two small children to H-E-B, and she doesn’t have anybody to watch them.”
For volunteers, the program has been a way to help neighbors in a time when so many of their normal day-to-day activities have been put on pause. Another volunteer, Christina Legrand, is a Cedar Park resident and real estate agent. A big part of her job consists of going to fundraisers and networking with people, all of which have come to a halt.
“You kind of feel trapped in your house like you don’t know how to help,” she said. “Having somebody organize something that can help people in the community and be able to get out and be part of it, you feel like you’re making some contribution in all this.”
Despite stay-at-home orders in Texas, the program can continue since it involves delivering food to people, which is an essential service, Bucy said. Some may not want to leave home during this time, but they can still help from home by making calls to seniors.
Bucy said a number of local officials have stepped up to volunteer – party affiliation doesn't matter.
“It’s been very heartfelt, to be honest, to see all of our leaders coming together but also just all of our neighbors coming together,” Bucy said. “People are yearning for ways to stay safe, but also help their community.”
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